He was among Germany’s most accomplished flying Aces during WWII – though he hated killing. His success was valuable propaganda for the Nazis – yet he wasn’t a fan of the regime and even stood up to Hitler. And considering the number of planes he shot down… well, let’s just say he had a rather ironic death.
Hans-Joachim Marseille was born on December 13, 1919 in Berlin, Germany. As to his surname, he was a descendent of French Huguenots who fled France during its purge of that sect.
His father, Siegfried, was an Army officer in WWI, and a general during WWII. In 1941, he participated in the German invasion of Russia where he died. Before doing so, however, Siegfried introduced his son to the wild nightlife that was to be the younger man’s undoing.
As for Marseille, he wasn’t expected to enter the military. As a child, he had been rather sickly and almost died from influenza. Spoiled and pampered because of that, he never learned to respect authority and developed a reputation as a lazy, rebellious, and troublesome student.
That changed when he joined the Luftwaffe (German Airforce) on November 7, 1938… sort of. During one cross-country flight, he landed in a field to relieve himself. He took off just as a group of farmers arrived to see if he was alright, blasting them away with his slipstream. Upset, they called the authorities, causing him to be suspended.
This and many other such incidents held him back while his colleagues graduated and attained rank. On November 1, 1939 Marseille was posted with the 5th fighter pilot school. To everyone’s surprise, he graduated with an outstanding assessment on July 18, 1940.
Marseille joined the attack on Britain on August 24 where he shot down a British plane – his first! But at the cost of abandoning his wingman, for which he got in trouble. His fourth victory happened on September 18… for which he again got in trouble. He had abandoned his leader, who was killed.
Still, there was a war and Germany needed every able-bodied man it had. So Marseille achieved three more victories before they kicked him out and reassigned him to the 52nd Fighter Wing (JG 52). But nothing changed.
So they transferred him to JG 27 on December 24 under Group Commander Eduard Neumann. Neumann knew that Marseille was a troublemaker but saw his potential. Which was why he transferred the new kid to North Africa – where he’d earn the title, “Star of Africa.”
Marseille was a party animal who was often too hung over to fly. Based in an airfield just outside Tripoli, Libya the lack of available women would change all that… eventually. It was in North Africa that he learned to hone his skills, mastering a form of aerial combat known as deflection shooting.
This involves shooting not at the enemy per se, but at where they’ll be based on their trajectory. He took it a step further, however, by coming at them from a high angle instead of the standard fly-in-from-behind-’em-and-shoot.
He not only took risks that went against the rulebooks, but also learned to get close to his enemies. As a result, he used far less bullets than most – averaging about 15 per hit. By February 1942, he had 50 victories. By the end of June, he scored 101.
He was sent back to Germany in June to meet Hitler. During a party hosted by Willy Messerschmitt (designer of the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter plane), he was asked to play the piano. He did so, starting with some classics before moving on to play American jazz – which was banned since Hitler considered it “degenerate.” Upset, Hitler left.
The following month, Marseille was at another party when he heard officials talking about the Jews. That visibly upset him since his family had been friends with a Jewish doctor who delivered him at birth. The official line was that the Jews had simply been sent off to Eastern Europe.
But Marseille now knew otherwise. On August 13, he was in Italy to receive an award from Benito Mussolini, after which he disappeared. The Gestapo found him, eventually, and convinced him to return to his base. He had a fiancée, at the time, and some historians suggest that she was the leverage they used on him.
It must have worked because on September 1, he downed 17 planes in three sorties – bringing his total to a whopping 126. It should be noted, however, that the British deny this, claiming he had shot down less.
Whatever the case, September 1942 was his most productive month with a whopping 54 kills. Eight of these were shot down in 10 minutes – the most brought down by a lone pilot in a single day. This earned him a type 82 Volkswagen Kübelwagen as a gift, as well as the rank of Hauptmann (captain) – becoming the youngest to hold that position.
But while he enjoyed the promotions, gifts, and praise, the killing bothered him. To atone, he’d sometimes fly over the downed plane to see if its pilot survived. Then he’d write a letter, fly over Allied positions, and drop it to them. Included were coordinates so they’d be able to retrieve their man – something he called “penance” and done against orders.
Still, the Axis powers were outnumbered and Germany was running out of skilled pilots. Unlike the Allies who could rotate their men and give them a much needed break, Germany couldn’t afford to.
By September 26, Marseille made his 158th claim, but it came at a price – he was so exhausted that he could barely get out of his plane. They wanted to send him back to Germany for a vacation… and to attend a speech Hitler was giving.
Marseille refused, claiming his men needed him.
On September 30, his cockpit began filling up with smoke. Unable to return to base, he bailed out and got hit by his plane’s vertical stabilizer.
To the horror of his watching comrades, he hit the ground some 4.3 miles south of Sidi Abdel Rahman – without ever deploying his parachute. His death so traumatized his unit that they were put on furlough for almost a month.
Marseille, who downed 158 planes (albeit in contention) with his Messerschmitt Bf 109, became its 159th victim.